Ethan Gilsdorf’s book “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms” comes out September 1 from The Lyons Press. After playing Dungeons & Dragons religiously in the 1970s and 1980s, Gilsdorf went on to become a poet, teacher, and journalist. In the U.S. and in Paris, he’s worked as a freelance correspondent, guidebook writer, and film and restaurant reviewer. Now based in Somerville, Massachusetts, his travel, arts, and pop culture stories appear regularly in the New York Times, Boston Globe, and Christian Science Monitor, and have been published in other magazines and newspapers including National Geographic Traveler, Psychology Today, and the Washington Post. He has also been a guest on talk radio as a fantasy and escapism expert. He does not own elf ears, but he has kept all his old D&D gear, and has been known to host a Lord of the Rings party or two.
Could you please explain what Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is about?
Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is combination travelogue, pop culture analysis, and memoir. The book is an exploration and celebration of fantasy and gaming subcultures — what they are, who are these game-players and fantasy fans, and what explains the irresistible appeal of these fantastic adventures.
It’s also a personal quest. I’m a gamer from the 1970s and 1980s but left behind those games when I went off to college. Years and years passed. Around when I turned 40, I discovered my old D&D and other RPG gear in a box in my parents’ basement. I spent hours looking at my yellowed character sheets, brown paper-covered DMs Guide and Monster Manual and three-ring binders of rules and map. But D&D was associated in my mind with a difficult childhood: my mom became gravely ill when I was 12, and I now think I partly used D&D as an “escape” from that pain.
I was inspired to set off on a journey through my old hobby and see how fantasy and gaming had changed, and what new fantasy worlds now existed. I wanted to know what attracted serious gamers today, particularly adults, into fantasy worlds, and for what reasons, whether healthy, unhealthy, or in between.
So, why this book?
This book is particularly relevant now. Fantasy is much, much more acceptable as an activity now, compared to when I played as a teenager way back when. Now, tens of millions of people around the globe turn away from the “real” world to inhabit others. Cosplay, collectibles, action figures, comic book conventions, Renaissance fairs, live-action role-playing games (LARPs) — all this stuff is huge. The online game World of Warcraft (WoW) has twelve million users worldwide. “Geek” is no longer a four-letter word.
People — parents, teachers, also have questions about how safe it is to immerse yourself in these fantasy worlds. There are concerns about addiction and abuse. Are we all “escaping” and if so, why?
The final answer to this question: I met a lot of folks (mostly men) who, like me, had come back to gaming after a long hiatus. They had played as teens or in their 20s and then life (work, spouses, children) got in the way. I was curious to see how older gamers had re-integrated gaming into their lives.
Would you mind describing what your own gaming background was like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?
I grew up in a family that played a lot of family board games and card games. We also played outdoors a lot, and had lots of time and space and nature for imaginative play. I discovered D&D in 1979, when I was 12. I played D&D every week for five or six years. At the same time, I played lots of TSR-produced RPG spin-offs. I really loved Gamma World, Boot Hill, Top Secret. I dabbled in war games and simulation games like Avalon Hill’s Stalingrad and TSR’s Risk-like Divine Right. But the WW II scenarios never really captured my imagination. I really liked the SF and fantasy milieus, in particular the Tolkien-esque worlds. Home PC games were their infancy when I was a teen, but I do remember playing MUDs like Adventure (or was it Dungeon?) on my friend Bill’s dad’s terminal hooked into the mainframe at the University of New Hampshire. In the era of Defender, Galaga, PacMan and Centipede, I blew a ton of quarters on console games. My all time favorite is Robotron. I missed the wave of Doom and Quake — by then I had stopped gaming altogether. Only in the past year, as research for my book, did I try MMOs like WoW.
What was the process like in getting it (the book) published?
Hard. I have been a working, full-time freelance journalist for almost ten years, writing on arts, travel and pop culture. My interest in fantasy worlds and gaming came creeping back in 2001-2003 when Lord of the Rings came out. I was living in Paris at the time and began to write articles on Rings and Tolkien, on assignment for places like the Washington Post and Boston Globe. I was already subconsciously exploring fantasy again. But I didn’t think it would become a book. When I moved to Boston 5 years ago, I kept writing on these topics, met an agent (at the wonderful writing school where I teach, Grub Street Inc.) and she expressed interest in a memoir/pop culture/travelogue. I fleshed the ideas out into a book proposal. She sold it to my publisher. The odds are stacked against any writer. I say it took me 20 years to write this book. I’ve been writing seriously since 1989, at least.
What kind of research went into writing this book?
Once I got my (very modest) advance from my publisher, I set out to explore every aspect of fantasy and gaming and fandom that I could squeeze in. I wanted my “quest” to begin in my geeky teenage past and end in our online gaming future. I set out to investigate and participate in as many facets of this phenomenon as possible. I questioned Tolkien scholars and medievalists. I talked to grown men who built hobbit holes and spoke Elvish, and to grown women who played Warcraft and EverQuest. I camped with 12,000 medieval re-enactors for a week. I went to a WoW tournament, and I played MMOs. I joined a LARP for a weekend. I hung out at conventions like Dragon*Con and gaming stores. I tried to meet Gary Gygax and Peter Jackson (just missing Gygax; he died before my trip to Wisconsin). I crisscrossed America, the world, and other worlds—from Boston to England, New Zealand to France, and Planet Earth to the realm of Aggramar.I was not afraid to wear costumes!
Would you say the research you did was “work?”
It rarely felt like work. But being a journalist and constantly asking questions, taking notes, videos and pictures, can be grueling. I wanted to participate in these games and activities as much as possible, but I could not often immerse myself fully because I was so busy observing and analyzing, too.
What exposure have you had with online worlds? Was it all for research or have you actually played for fun?
As I said, I used to play primitive MUDs like “Dungeon” and “Adventure,” was a serious coin-op video game player, and dabbled in some pretty rudimentary games for my home PC on IMB and Apples. But I had never played an MMOs. I had avoided them in recent years because I was worried about getting sucked in. I was worried about the time suck. Me getting back into MMOs like WoW was initially “research,” but I enjoyed the experience, getting my toes wet again. But I wouldn’t say I was hooked.
Of all the people you crossed paths with in your research, would you say there was one or two who deserved to be crowned king or queen of the geeks?
I met a couple named Elyse and Mike from Milwaukee, who I profile in my chapter called “Geeks in Love.” These two have the perfect geek relationship: she’s into the SCA and D&D and calligraphy and period baking, he’s into horror and SF and building reproductions of props from his favorite movies like 2001 and War of the Worlds. Mike is really a talented artist. Their house is a shrine to geekdom. It’s full of collectible tchotchkes from a bunch of fandom universes. They were very cool and I spent the weekend with them.
After everything you did and all the conclusions you’ve drawn from your research, would you consider yourself a geek today?
Yes, definitely. That’s a theme of the book: Embracing my geekhood. In high school I was shunned, and made to feel ashamed for not being a jock, or not being popular, or not having a girlfriend. But “geek” means something different to me now. It means I’m passionate about what I love, be it Tolkien, or Peter Jackson’s movies, or special effects, or the history of gaming. I feel comfortable identifying with the “geek” name again. I made T-shirts for my book launch and book tour with the slogan “GEEK PRIDE” and a red d20 on them. And I wore that shirt proudly at Gen Con this year.
Would you say your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer?
Yes, definitely. I think the D&D rules system taught me the value of specificity and being concrete and filling my writing with details. All those vocabulary words in the DM’s guide: harlot! halberd! theocracy! adamantine! vorpal! I think all writers are, to an extent, world builders, even if they aren’t genre writers. Playing D&D made me read the dictionary, learn about Norse mythology, Tolkien. It also taught about storytelling. Like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s archaic literary clubs, we sat around (not drinking beer or smoking pipes, but still), telling each other stories in the dark. D&D stretched my mind. Imagination, storytelling, curiosity. All good and necessary tools for the writer — no matter the genre or style.
Would you say there is grind in the writing process?
Yes, there can be a grind, both in completing a single project like a long article or book, and the grind of the career-building, too. Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks was written under a tight deadline: most of the chapters were composed in nine months, and I was researching, traveling and writing all at the same time. I needed to knock out about two chapters a month, 4,000-6,000 words per chapter. There were times when I was exhausted, depleted, and sometimes, despairing. In terms of the “grind” of the career, I tell my writing students (I also teach writing) that few get to write a book and even fewer get to have one published. Unless you are brilliant or exceptionally lucky, you have to be patient. You have to put in the time, work your way up the ladder of your writing career in incremental steps. Levels, if you will. No one expects to perform a cello recital within a year after picking up the instrument. Same with writing. You need to remember writing is an art and a craft, but it’s also a lot of work. I call it “AIC” — “Ass In Chair.” Putting in the time. It’s going to be two or three years minimum before you get to be any good, and five or ten years before you see any progress as a published writer. It took me 20 years of work in a variety of genres before I published this book, my first book: this one, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.
By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer?
I started out as a fiction and screenwriter in college, then moved on to poetry, then to journalism. In each case, all I wanted was to do good work and have an audience. For me as a non-fiction writer, I find joy in connecting with my readers. Getting an email or a letter saying, “Hey, that article or poem really moved me or connected with me. It made me think about such and such from my own life.” That’s what writers live for. I hope folks who read Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks will contact me to tell me what they think. I hope it connects with gamers, old and young. I think it will strike a chord with those who are into gaming and want to hear others explain why they got into gaming, and those who have someone who games in their lives — a spouse or child — but they don’t get what the appeal of fantasy is all about. I think my book will help explain why fantasy and gaming is so important to so many people.
Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?
Persistence. Patience. Faith. Find good and honest readers (other than your spouse, parents and friends) who can give you useful feedback. Develop a thick skin so you don’t take criticism personally and get used to rejection. You’ll encounter a lot of it. Writing is highly, highly competitive and only getting more so.
Your website is quite impressive. I would think anyone who is reading this interview would enjoy checking it out. Would you mind talking a little bit about it?
Thanks. I did the website myself using an online site builder service called Squarespace.com, which has basic templates that you can customize. Even a non-web savvy guy like me can make a goof-looking site. I’m not a techie but can do some basic HTML if necessary. I got the graphic designer at my publisher to make me a banner. He’s a great artist named Bret Kerr (who also designed my book jacket, see his portfolio here). I shot and edited a promotional video myself. I’m adding stuff all the time.
So, if you had it to do all over again, would you do anything different as far as your gaming and geekness are concerned?
I wish I had been less cautious and ambivalent about gaming in my 20s and 30s and had embraced gaming and fantasy instead of shunning it. I wish I had returned to gaming earlier.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?
I’m launching a contest on my website that I’m excited about. It’s called the Great Geek Giveaway! and I want folks to share their geekiest secret, freakiest fandom moment, most embarrassing gaming gaffe. Folks can submit a brief essay, photo or video and win cool prizes. More info here.
And one final question, when was the last time you rolled a 20-sided dice?
I was at Gen Con this August and rolled a d20 a lot that weekend. I also loved dipping my hands into the bins of dice at dice vendors on the exhibition floor! Something quite pleasing about that. Sort of like scooping up a dragon’s hoard of treasure. I have a couple d20s on my desk and I play with them every so often. It’s a way to connect with my gaming past.